Matter matters, and not only to the committee that hands out Nobel Prizes. Three U.S.-based scientists on Tuesday won the physics prize for their discovery that ordinary electrons acting together in strong magnetic fields at very low temperatures can condense into a fluid of new composite subatomic particles. Translation: Radically smaller televisions, computers and cell phones. Americans Robert Laughlin and Daniel Tsui and German Horst Stoermer were lauded by the Nobel Foundation for a breakthrough in quantum physics with wide significance. "Like superconductivity, this is the study of the behavior of electrons at very low temperatures," says TIME science editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt. "It's a really interesting discovery in search of applications."
The chemistry award, which went to U.S.-based researchers Walter Kohn and John Pople "for developing methods that can be used for theoretical studies of the properties of molecules and the chemical processes in which they are involved," has few immediate implications for the layman. "This is really particle mechanics," said Elmer-DeWitt. "It's more physics than chemistry."